Billy Murray

BILLY MURRAY (1877-1954) is one of a handful of the 20th century's most influential entertainers. His influence centered on the recording industry.

In an era dominated by the operatically-influenced singing style, he helped to popularize a more natural approach. He was an incredibly versatile artist who performed blues, Broadway songs, children's songs, classic barbershop quartet songs, comic dialogue, minstrel songs, crooner songs, dance numbers, dramatic recitation, Irish ballads, Jazz, minstrel songs, operetta, ragtime, romantic ballads, storytelling....

CHILI BEAN probably falls in the comic dialogue category. The lyrics were written by Len Brown; the music by Albert Von Tilzer. Murray recorded Chili Bean for, and it was released on, the Victor, Edison, Gennett, Grey Gull, Operaphone, Pathe, and Starr record labels. Presented here is the Edison Diamond Disc (50707R) recording made in 1920.

THE RED ROSE RAG reflects the ragtime vogue of the early 20th century. It brings to us a wonderfully catchy tune. Edward Madden wrote the lyrics and Percy Wenrich the music. The American Quartet (Billy Murray, tenor) recorded it on Victor 16965B in 1911; it was also recorded by Premier Quartet (Billy Murray, tenor) on Edison Gold Moulded Record 10535, a black "wax" 2-minute cylinder also in 1911, but released in 1912.


Jeffrey Lichtman assembled the following Billy Murray insight. (Enjoy Jeff's "Swazoo Koolak's Web Jukebox" at Turtle shares this information with Jeff's approval.

Billy Murray was probably the most popular recording artist of the acoustic era (that is, before microphones were commonly used in making records). He is also one of the first true recording stars.

He was born in Philadelphia on May 25, 1877 to Irish immigrant parents. The family moved to Denver. By 1893 Billy was an actor in Harry Leavitt's High Rollers Troupe. Murray made his first recording while on a trip to San Francisco in 1897. Unfortunately, none of the cylinders he made then are known to exist. Murray then joined the Al. G. Field Greater Minstrels, with whom he toured and performed in blackface. When the troupe came to New York, he visited the record companies there, and made some cylinders. Edison released Murray cylinders in 1903. Murray started recording fairly regularly at that time, first for Edison, and then for Columbia and Victor.

At first, Murray recorded mostly the sort of material he had performed in blackface, but he rapidly branched out into other types of songs. He became a sort of unofficial interpreter of songs by George M. Cohan. One of his most popular early Cohan hits was You're a Grand Old Rag (changed from "Rag" to "Flag" when people objected to calling the American flag a "rag", although Cohan's intentions were patriotic - in his musical George Washington, Jr., the song illustrated a soldier carrying a flag that had been tattered in battle).

Murray formed a recording team with Ada Jones in 1906. They recorded many "romantic" duets, including When We Are M-A-R-R-I-E-D and I've Taken Quite a Fancy To You. He also recorded with the American Quartet (called the Premier Quartet on the Edison label). Murray was very good with novelty and topical songs. He recorded more of these as his career progressed. During the First World War, he recorded The Terrible War in Snyder's Grocery Store (a song in which the protagonist has a nightmare where the imported goods all fight with each other). At the beginning of prohibition, he recorded The Alcoholic Blues. In the twenties, Murray teamed with Aileen Stanley on the Victor label. They recorded many types of material, including romantic songs. They even recorded songs in which Stanley plays Murray's "mother," which is odd considering that Murray was quite a bit older than Stanley.

Murray's voice was well suited for acoustic recording. He was a tenor who sounded natural while singing loudly into the recording horn used in the acoustic recording process. When electrical recording became the standard in 1925, Murray had to adjust. He had to sing more quietly to avoid overdriving the microphones and amplifiers, and as a result, his tone and expression suffered. The public's tastes in music were also changing (largely due to the influence of jazz), and Murray's popularity declined rapidly at this point.

In the late twenties, he performed on record with several different dance bands, including Jean Goldkette's and Paul Whiteman's, but this didn't last. His contract with Victor expired in 1927 In 1928 Murray started recording with Edison again. Edison was still making acoustic records at that time (it was the last of the major record companies to switch to electrical recording). Also, Edison was always a bit stodgy in its offerings (largely due to the influence of Thomas Edison himself, who imposed his musical taste on the company).

Murray made duets on Edison with Walter Scanlan (A.K.A. Walter Van Brunt), another singer who hit his peak in the acoustic era. In 1929, Edison came out with electrically recorded "needle cut" records that could be played on standard equipment (up until that point, Edison had mostly made cylinders and Diamond Discs, neither of which could be played with steel needles). Murray and Scanlan made records using this new process (new to Edison, anyway), but they didn't sell well. This had little to do with the singers - the Edison needle-cut records did not catch on with the public, and the Edison company got out of the record business shortly thereafter. In the thirties, Murray recorded only sporadically. He performed on radio, and provided voices for a couple of cartoons. In the forties, he performed on the National Barn Dance radio show. He made his last record in 1943.

Murray's health started to deteriorate in the mid-forties. On August 17, 1954, he died from a heart attack while attending a production of Arabian Nights.

Biographical sources: "Billy Murray, The Phonograph Industry's First Great Recording Artist," by Hoffmann, Carty, & Riggs; "The Encyclopedia of Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925," by Tim Gracyk.


Return to the Jukebox


This page was updated on August 25, 2000.